2021 | Transportation

Hogan, county leaders spar over I-270 project

Fighting intensifies as another regional transportation board vote possible

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Gov. Larry Hogan (left) and Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich

File photos

Some of Montgomery County’s elected officials are hoping for a compromise with Gov. Larry Hogan administration involving a plan to widen I-270 to reduce traffic congestion.

But in recent weeks, Hogan and political allies have targeted Montgomery County officials in pointed statements and ads, urging the public to blame the county for blocking progress on traffic improvements.

A political action committee affiliated with Hogan released ads this month criticizing County Executive Marc Elrich, County Council President Tom Hucker and Del. Marc Korman (D-Bethesda), saying they are stalling the project and forcing residents to endure traffic congestion. 

Hogan also shared, on Twitter, a video with a similar broadside at Montgomery County leaders, saying they also are putting other major transportation projects in the region at risk.

Hogan’s administration has said that if the toll project fails and the state loses expected revenue, it could put many other transportation projects at risk. The administration initially put the potential loss at $6 billion, then cut the estimate back to $1.5 billion.

But critics are denouncing Hogan’s latest tactic as fearmongering, with no basis.

In an interview, Korman quipped that the attacks on him at least show that Hogan, for the moment, is focused on state issues rather than a possible run for the White House. 

“I’m glad he is focusing on the Capital Beltway and not the Des Moines Beltway,” Korman said.

Korman said he was concerned that while the governor has consistently said private money will help construct the project, tolls will actually help pay for much of it. There won’t be “some altruistic infusion of cash from the private sector,” he said. 

“If we want to pay for infrastructure with tolls, we can have that discussion,” Korman said.

In an interview Friday, Elrich said he still preferred his proposal of having two reversible lanes in both directions, to serve heavy traffic during peak times. He also suggested using some of the available space along I-270, especially toward the northern end, to add another lane in either direction given current exit layouts.

Elrich said he’s still hopeful the governor and county officials can reach some agreement, even with Hogan’s recent letter to the Transportation Planning Board. That letter outlines which state projects would also be cut if the I-270 widening project isn’t approved for an environmental study — including five state roads projects in Montgomery County.

Those projects are:

  • A project to evaluate safety and accessibility issues on Md. 97 around Montgomery Hills
  • Upgrades on Md. 117 from I-270 to west of Game Preserve Road
  • Reconstruct Md. 124 from Midcounty Highway to Warfield Road
  • Interchange improvements on Md. 97 at Md. 28
  • The first phase of expanding Bus Rapid Transit service along the Corridor Cities Transitway, from the Shady Grove Metro to Metropolitan Grove

“I have been talking to his people, particularly his transportation staff, on a regular basis, and if I didn’t think there was a way to get to something, I wouldn’t be wasting my time,” Elrich said. He declined to comment on a possible compromise. 

In a response to the governor’s letter to the Transportation Planning Board, Korman wrote a Twitter thread highlighting that most of the projects threatened to be cut already have little or no state funding in Hogan’s consolidated transportation program, which runs through fiscal year 2026.

Asked by Bethesda Beat to respond, Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, wrote in an email that Korman’s thread “leaves out very critical context.”

“The projects on the list are to be completed by 2035, not in the next six years outlined in the [consolidated transportation program],” Ricci wrote.

“The County Executive’s constituents deserve to know the consequences of his actions, putting at risk not just a new bridge and the entire project, but also major projects throughout the region,” Ricci wrote about Elrich’s overall opposition.

Ricci was referring to is the American Legion Bridge across the Potomac River, which would be reconstructed in the project’s first phase. Along with that, two high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes would be added in both directions from the bridge from the southern end of I-270 to I-370. 

Previously, the project had also included those improvements to the Capital Beltway east of I-270. But MDOT officials announced in May the first phase of the project would not include that section.

Elrich, however, said Hogan is only going to be in office for about another year; another governor might have different priorities on the projects. 

Echoing Elrich, Hucker told reporters at a news conference Monday he’s also hopeful for a compromise between county leaders and the Hogan administration.

There’s a need for “targeted road improvements,” but there’s also a need to increase transit opportunities and create more incentives for people to drive less, including telecommuting policies, Hucker said.

An anticipated Transportation Planning Board meeting is scheduled for July 21, with another vote possible on whether the I-270 widening project is approved for an air quality analysis. If the project is off that list, it could lose out on federal funding.

The same board voted last month to not do an air quality analysis the 270 project. However, since that meeting, pressure from the Hogan administration has led to some entities rethinking their vote or, in the case of Frederick County, taking County Councilman Kai Hagen, a project opponent, off the board. 

No matter what happens at the July meeting, the project still needs approval from the Board of Public Works and federal approval, Hucker said. 

“I’m hoping that there’s more honest debate about [the project] and not dark money ads misleading the public, because I think we will reach a better solution if there’s real, honest, bipartisan debate instead of just finger pointing,” Hucker said.

In an interview Monday, however, James Ports, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said the project has changed considerably since 2017 to address county officials’ concerns. That includes the most recent change in May, which eliminated work on the Capital Beltway east of I-270 from the first phase of the project. 

Reversible lanes are not viable because they will not lead to enough reduction in traffic congestion, Ports said. He encouraged those pushing for a focus on transit over a highway project to determine how that compares financially to a public-private partnership, or P3.

“I would encourage people to find a P3, a transit project that will pay for itself, and I’m sure [Transportation Secretary Greg] Slater would help work with them,” Ports said. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com